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The Cold Truth: Health Benefits of Ice Baths and Cold Plunges

You’ve likely been seeing ice baths and cold plunges quickly becoming the talk of the town, especially on social media. You may be wondering, “what’s all the hype with these?” and “what makes them so beneficial?” Whether you’ve done it before, have always wanted to or are curious to learn more, we’re going to dive into all you need to know about ice baths and cold plunges along with some tips, considerations and my recommendations before diving in!

As a Personal Trainer and Nutrition Coach, I am frequently asked questions on the newest trends in the industry that are filling up your feed. With all the hype and publicity surrounding this chilling practice, I wanted to provide you with some valuable insights, tips, and considerations before (re)taking the plunge yourself.

Recently, I decided to revisit this age-old recovery technique that's been making waves in the health & fitness world in recent months! I was reached out to by The Cold Pod, a company that makes and produces these cold plunge pop up baths for your backyard or events. They sent me one of their pods and as a very active person myself, I knew this would do wonders for my recovery, but also thought it would be a fun activity to do with others and have the opportunity to share more on this topic with you & the entire MF Community!

Ice baths and cold plunges can be a powerful tool for enhancing recovery, reducing inflammation, and boosting overall well-being. Let's explore what these cold therapies are all about and how they can benefit you on your fitness journey.

cold plunge

What Are Ice Baths/Cold Plunges?

Ice baths and cold plunges involve immersing your body in cold water, typically ranging from 50 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit, or in some cases lower for more advanced and regimented plungers or athletes, for a specific duration. This exposure to cold temperatures triggers physiological responses within the body, leading to various health and performance benefits (and potential downsides). 

Benefits of Ice Baths and Cold Plunges
  • Accelerated Recovery: Cold exposure helps to constrict blood vessels and reduce inflammation, promoting faster muscle repair and recovery post-workout.

  • Improved Circulation: The cold stimulates circulation, enhancing blood flow and oxygen delivery to muscles and tissues, aiding in recovery and reducing muscle soreness.

  • Enhanced Mental Toughness: Enduring the discomfort of cold exposure can improve mental resilience, helping you push through challenging workouts and overcome mental barriers.

Types of Exercise to Pair with Ice Baths or Cold Plunging

Ice baths and cold plunges can benefit a wide range of individuals, from elite athletes to weekend warriors and fitness enthusiasts. If you're regularly engaging in intense physical activity or seeking to optimize recovery and performance, incorporating ice baths or cold plunges into your routine could be beneficial. However, there are some recent studies that have shown adverse effects of cold water immersion (CWI) directly after strength or resistance training. 

This is not to say that CWI doesn’t work to reduce muscle soreness, reduce inflammation or challenge you mentally when done after strength training. These studies have just shown that the CWI actually halts the muscle building process that continues to take place after your training session ends– which when building lean muscle mass is the goal, you don’t want that happening! 

These studies have shown that these impacts are not present when CWI follows a cardiorespiratory based exercise session such as running, cycling, team sports or bodyweight high intensity classes where you may be breaking a sweat and are focused less on pushing resistance or added weight. 

This doesn’t mean stop your strength or resistance training program in order to prioritize cold plunging– I of course would never recommend that as a Personal Trainer as strength and resistance training is one of the best methods of training for all individuals, no matter what your goals are.  As an overall recommendation, if you’re interested in getting into cold plunge recovery, start with doing so on your rest or cardio days. You can use CWI as a recovery activity, similar to how you would take an active rest day to walk outdoors, play pickle-ball or do some stretching and mobility at home. 

When thinking about how to incorporate cold plunges and ice baths in your exercise routine, I would recommend viewing this as a bonus into your current routine, vs. a replacement. There are not enough studies or any that show that cold plunges and ice baths are any better for recovery than walking, stretching, mobility, restorative yoga or other active rest day activities.

cold plunge
Optimal Temperature and Frequency

Research suggests that the optimal temperature for ice baths and cold plunges falls within the range of 50 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit (10 to 15 degrees Celsius). This temperature range effectively triggers the desired physiological responses without posing undue risk. More experienced athletes and professionals in the fitness or sports industry may plunge into colder temperatures as part of their unique recovery plan for the high intensity regimen they follow. 

When it comes to frequency versus consistency, both aspects are important. While occasional cold plunges can offer immediate benefits, consistency over the long term is key to maximizing the cumulative effects. Meaning that you can cold plunge a few times a week for a month and feel fantastic– less muscle soreness and inflammation and increased mental strength to hold a bit longer in the plunge each time. However, if you stop plunging for whatever reason, you go on vacation or work trip, life just gets busy and you don't pick it back up as regularly, you may start to notice that muscle soreness return following a strenuous workout. In addition, when you do decide to get back into the CWI, it may be shocking at first, because it’s been a while since your body & mind have acclimated to that temperature.   

Because cold plunges have immediate effects on the body, shorter bouts have shown to be most effective. This could be a short 1-3 minute plunge a few times per week, on those rest or cardio days. Especially if you’re just starting out, shorter plunges are going to be most beneficial and realistic when it comes to your busy work day. Since the body is actively working to increase internal body temperature while submerged in the cold water or ice bath, there are some risks such as hypothermia that you don’t want to induce. 

For this reason, if you’re a busy working professional turned fitness enthusiast who is not an athlete by profession with a very regimented training program, it’s recommended to max your plunges between 5-10 mins each session. We’ll get more into gradual increases in a bit. If this time frame sounds crazy, stick to the 1-5 minute range, that’s where I will be and I am even a very active individual!

While there are no real set guidelines for optimal CWI benefits, there is merit to say that when you start small and build up gradually, you’re more likely to stick with it and keep showing up, than if you try to go from 0 to 100 on the first plunge, or should I say 98 to 50! 

Tips & Takeaways for Your Plunge

cold plunge

Here are some tips to follow as you get started to gradually increase your CWI or ice bath time each time you plunge: 

  1. Gradual Exposure: Start with shorter durations and gradually increase exposure time to allow your body to acclimate to the cold. This can mean starting with 10-30 seconds and if you’re new to cold plunges, this short time alone can be challenging! So give yourself some time to acclimate and work your way up to about 5 mins, perhaps in 15-30 sec increments each time. You can start even once a week and work your way up as desired. 

  2. Listen to Your Body: Pay attention to how your body responds to cold exposure. If you experience prolonged shivering, numbness, or discomfort, exit the cold bath immediately. If you do have any pre-existing conditions, consulting with a doctor on how the cold water immersion may impact or exacerbate your condition is crucial to do before taking the plunge – better safe than sorry!

  3. Hydration: Ensure you’ve had plenty of water throughout your day leading up to your plunge, and hydrating sufficiently after can also support your body’s overall regulation back to your 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit internal body temperature. 

Incorporating ice baths and cold plunges into your routine can be a game-changer for recovery and performance. However, it's essential to approach them mindfully, respecting your body's limits and adjusting accordingly.

**Side note, I loved The Cold Pod! It was so easy to put together, took about 5 mins to assemble and 10 mins to fill using the backyard hose! Couldn't recommend it enough if you're wanting sometime compact and easy to enjoy! Snag your here on Amazon (I have the 116 gal featured in the photos of this blog)!**

As you contemplate whether to try ice baths or cold plunges, remember this: you're not missing out on anything if you choose not to participate. While cold therapy can offer benefits for recovery and performance, it's just one tool in the toolbox. There's no one-size-fits-all approach to fitness and recovery, so choose what feels right and is realistic for you!

Whether you decide to take the plunge or not, remember to prioritize your overall well-being and listen to your body. So, if you're intrigued by the idea of ice baths and cold plunges, go ahead and give it a try, following these tips we discussed today. But if it's not your cup of tea, that's perfectly okay too! 

I look forward to hearing your experience and please feel free to drop any additional questions on this topic below!

To join conversations just like this and realistic health & fitness tips for busy professionals and parents, subscribe to my newsletter, MF Weekly! New tips, hacks and recommendations for a realistic, lifestyle Personal Trainer and Nutrition coach, every Wednesday at 12pm PT/3pm ET!


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